Saturday, April 4, 2015

Thomas Cromwell, Founding Father of "The American Dream"

by Beth von Staats

Thomas Cromwelll
(Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger)

“The American Dream is a constant reminder that America's true nature and distinctive grandeur is in promising the common man, the man on the make, a better chance to succeed here than common men enjoy anywhere else on earth.”
― Cal Jillson

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, Vicar General and Chief Minister of King Henry VIII, is a very popular man in contemporary British culture. With the huge literary Booker Prize award winning success for Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies leading the charge, two critically acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company plays and a British Broadcasting Company mini-series based on Mantel's prized novels soon followed. With the “Mantel Midas Touch”, no doubt Golden Globe, BAFTA and Olivier Awards will abound. Thomas Cromwell, our Lord Privy Seal, certainly made an amazing resurgence, not only in recognition as an important historical figure, but also in a greatly enhanced respect of Cromwell’s legacy.

"The Beatles in America" February 1964
United Press International/ Public Domain
What is next for the base-born commoner from Putney? Well, like the Pilgrims, Alfred Hitchcock, “Dr. Who”, Tom Jones, Julie Andrews, the lads from Liverpool, and a host of other famous and infamous Britons before him, Thomas Cromwell recently ventured across “The Pond”. On March 20th, the Royal Shakespeare Company plays Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2 premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, Ben Miles taking center stage. Tonight, Mark Rylance will have his turn when Wolf Hall, the British Broadcasting Company's six part mini-series, premiers on PBS Masterpiece Theater. Will Emmy and Tony Awards find their way to the King's Chief Minister? Is the queen Anglican?

Should any of this really come as a surprise? Despite the facts that the majority of Americans have no idea who Thomas Cromwell was and most of those who do either confuse him with Oliver Cromwell or recognize him as a fat and ugly villain who manipulated the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn, our man from Putney lived the “American Dream”. He really did. Born to a scandalous and bullying town drunk, a “ruffian” in his youth by his own admission, Thomas Cromwell received no titles, no rewards, no wealth, no respect, no fame and no property through inheritance. Plain and simple, all Cromwell had and all he ultimately lost, the man earned through an exhaustive work ethic, ingenuity, and a genius intellect – all mixed in with a little good fortune. It doesn't get more “Uncle Sam and Apple Pie” than that.

Video Credit: Act 1, Scene 1 Wolf Hall, Part One
The Royal Shakespeare Company 

King Henry VIII
(Artist Unknown)
Beyond Thomas Cromwell’s “American Dream” life story, however, there are several important reasons for people in the United States to take note of this fascinating and influential British historical figure. As obscure as he may be to those who live in the world's first republic, the brilliance of Thomas Cromwell's governance of England during his ten years of service to the monarchy, ultimately second in power only to King Henry VIII himself, not only influenced the future of Great's Britain's growing Parliamentary governance and emerging world imperial status, but also influenced the formation of the republican foundations of first the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Constitution – and ultimately through that governing manifesto’s influence, the United States Constitution that all Americans hold dear.

Thomas Cromwell? Our Putney "ruffian"? Who knew?

“When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.”
– Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

John Adams
Engraving: Library of Congress

Introductions are now in order. Thomas Cromwell and John Adams, please do remove your hats and bow respectfully. Very good. Now gentlemen, move to your separate corners please.

For those in Great Britain who know as much about John Adams as most Americans know about Thomas Cromwell, here is a short introduction. Born in 1735 in Braintree, a town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Adams was a Harvard educated attorney -- and an effective one at that. In his historically most relevant criminal case, John Adams successfully defended a British sentinel goaded on by at least fifty rebels to fire their arms, killing three people, while wounding eight others in what is now known as the Boston Massacre. Early in the game towards the cause of independence, Adams served as a highly effective and influential delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. During the American Revolutionary War, Adams became a diplomat, acting as an ambassador to both France and Holland, crucial countries in securing needed funding, allied military forces and arms.

King George III
(Artist: Allan Ramsay)
Once the United States gained independence as a sovereign nation, our man John Adams was appointed as minister and ambassador to the court of St. James. Thus, John Adams, who later became a two term Vice President under George Washington and ultimately America's second President of the Unites States, was the first American to serve in any official capacity in Great Britain. Although this mere skeleton description of John Adam's accomplishments points to his prowess as a politician, his greatest gifts to the United States and the world were not his outward persona of a brash and verbally blunt public servant, but instead his remarkable letter writing with his magnificent wife Abigail and political rival and later friend, Thomas Jefferson -- as well as Adam's genius in political philosophy.

Like Thomas Cromwell before him, John Adams was a “man of laws”, his crowning and most influential achievement the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Constitution. In crafting his vision of republican governance, John Adams took an obvious long and hard look at history. Living in a colony of Great Britain, a subject of King George III, Adams naturally researched the governmental structure and laws of the imperial nation reigning supreme in his homeland. Although not overtly conscious by arguably America's greatest founding father, this is where our man from Putney, Thomas Cromwell, steps in.

Let's now take a look at the Parliamentary Acts composed and/or championed by the political and intellectual genius Thomas Cromwell, as well as "handy implements of law" Cromwell utilized to great effect, and compare them to the Massachusetts Constitution Articles conceptualized and then actualized by political philosopher John Adams.

Stay in your corners, gentlemen. This might get a bit ugly.

Left: John Adams (Artist: Eliphalet Frazer Andrews)
Right: Thomas Cromwell (Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger)  

The Act of Restraint of Appeals (1533)

Thomas Cromwell, a highly effective lawyer and Parliamentarian, had a novel and ingenious idea. By using Parliament as the agent of change, the ruling government could rationally declare that all radical changes within England had the support of the subjects of the realm through their “representative government”. Although he may not have realized it at the time, when Cromwell drafted, advocated, and moved through the passage of The Act of Restraint of Appeals, he inched the monarchy towards its eventual shared power with Parliament and later its complete capitulation to it.

That was not his intention at the moment, however. Instead, the act set the legal foundation for the impending English Reformation, King Henry's supremacy over the clergy, and the nation's break from a papal authority. In short, the act forbade all appeals to the Pope in Rome on religious or any other matter, making the reigning monarch the final authority in all legal matters, whether religious or secular. To punctuate the authority of King Henry VIII and his successors, England and Wales were declared an Empire, and the reigning monarch an emperor, his crown Imperial.

Responding Massachusetts Constitution Articles 

Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

Article XIX. The people have a right, in an orderly and peaceable manner, to assemble to consult upon the common good; give instructions to their representatives, and to request of the legislative body, by the way of addresses, petitions, or remonstrances, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer.

King Henry VIII Dynasty Portrait
(Artist Unknown)

The Acts of Succession of 1534 and 1536

Thomas Cromwell composed and advocated these acts to establish King Henry VIII's line of succession. The Succession Act of 1534 bi-passed his daughter by Catalina de Aragon, Mary Tudor, their marriage declared by the amendable Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, to be “null and void from the first”. Instead, King Henry VIII's succession rights would fall to his progeny within a male dominated line with his second wife, Anne Boleyn. After her stark fall, the succession rights were changed to fall to his progeny within a male dominated line with his third wife, Jane Seymour. Thus, ultimately, the heir to King Henry VIII was his son by Jane Seymour, Prince Edward Tudor.

Note that the "Succession Act of 1534" is highlighted in this scene from Wolf Hall. Also, a Bill of Attainder filed to condemn Elizabeth Barton, Holy Maid of Kent, and her supporters is referenced, a legal procedure we shall also discuss.
Video Credit: Wolf Hall, The British Broadcasting Company

Responding Massachusetts Constitution Article

Article VI. No man, nor corporation, or association of men, have any other title to obtain advantages, or particular and exclusive privileges, distinct from those of the community, than what arises from the consideration of services rendered to the public; and this title being in nature neither hereditary, nor transmissible to children, or descendants, or relations by blood, the idea of a man born a magistrate, lawgiver, or judge, is absurd and unnatural.

The Meeting of Thomas and Margaret More After Death Sentence
(Artist: William Frederick Yeames) 

The Act of Supremacy of 1534

The Act of Supremacy was actually drafted by Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor through Cromwell's influence and then championed through Parliament by Audley, the increasingly powerful and influential Thomas Cromwell, and Lords of the king's inner circle. In short, this act established King Henry VIII “Supreme Head of the Church of England”, along with “his heirs and successors, and all kings of the realm”

The act further gave English monarchs “all honors, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity of the supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining; and that our said sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall have full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, record, order, correct, restrain, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offenses, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner of spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed, repressed, ordered, redressed, corrected, restrained, or amended, most to the pleasure of Almighty God, the increase of virtue in Christ's religion, and for the conservation of the peace, unity, and tranquility of this realm; any usage, foreign land, foreign authority, prescription, or any other thing or things...”

Phew!! Think about that for a moment. The Act of Supremacy established a complete enmeshing for the first time in English history of the legislature (Parliament), executive authority (monarch) and religion – all under the control of one man. To make matters worse, a soon following Treason Act of 1534 criminalized anyone disavowing the act. Oaths of compliance were mandated, treason charges filed for all refusing, the penalty death by execution. Add in Bills of Attainder, which we will discuss next, and the judiciary fell under the control of the monarch with Parliament's help, as well. With the stroke of the pen, not the sword, King Henry VIII was the most powerful reigning monarch in Europe respective to his authority over his own people -- in short, an omni-powerful tyrant.

Responding Massachusetts Constitution Articles

Article II. It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshiping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship.

Article VIII.  In order to prevent those, who are vested with authority, from becoming oppressors, the people have a right, at such periods and in such manner as they shall establish by their frame of government, to cause their public officers to return to private life; and to fill up vacant places by certain and regular elections and appointments.

Article XXX.  In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.

Block and Axe, Tower of London

Bills of Attainder

The Bill of Attainder was a handy procedure of Parliamentary Law that swiftly enabled Parliament to pass judicial sentence upon an accused person, whether justified or not irrelevant, as if it was a court of law. The concept when actualized enabled Parliament to act as judge and jury, with the Bill of Attainder submitted for review replacing a judicial verdict. Thus, the accused was condemned by statute rather than judged by a jury of peers. Literally speaking, the condemned was determined by legislative action to have "tainted blood" that needed to be "destroyed".

With ink and quill a minister acting on behalf of a monarch could propose a law and demonstrate that an individual violated the said law, thus punishment levied -- often retroactively. The minister could bi-pass the potential of subject revolt based on questionable actions, a clever individual demonstrating his innocence, and the risk of trial and judgment by peers. An attainder could even be brought for Parliamentary consideration after an offender's death in battle or revolt. Nifty, eh? What a convenient stroke of genius!

Although the use of Bills of Attainder began in the 14th century, first to depose the DeSpensers, allies and favorites of King Edward II, they were initially limited to garnishing the riches and lands of men who rivaled the security of the monarch or who were defeated in battle. During King Henry VIII's reign, however, the Bill of Attainder became a far more ominous tool, as for many unfortunate souls, it resulted in a death sentence, a convenient and expedient way to exact justice through judicial murder. In all cases, whether execution was exacted or not, the condemned lost nobility status if applicable with all property reverted to the crown, obviously leaving the condemned, family and heirs destitute.

Who perfected the use of Bills of Attainder? Well our man from Putney, Thomas Cromwell, of course.

Responding Massachusetts Constitution Articles (Oh my! John Adams had a lot to say about attainders! I will post just a few of the most relevant.)

Article XII.  No subject shall be held to answer for any crimes or offence, until the same is fully and plainly, substantially and formally, described to him; or be compelled to accuse, or furnish evidence against himself. And every subject shall have a right to produce all proofs, that may be favorable to him; to meet the witnesses against him face to face, and to be fully heard in his defense by himself, or his council at his election. And no subject shall be arrested, imprisoned, despoiled, or deprived of his property, immunities, or privileges, put out of the protection of the law, exiled, or deprived of his life, liberty, or estate, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.

Article XV.  In all controversies concerning property, and in all suits between two or more persons, except in cases in which it has heretofore been other ways used and practiced, the parties have a right to a trial by jury; and this method of procedure shall be held sacred, unless, in causes arising on the high seas, and such as relate to mariners' wages, the legislature shall hereafter find it necessary to alter it.

Article XXIV.  Laws made to punish for actions done before the existence of such laws, and which have not been declared crimes by preceding laws, are unjust, oppressive, and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a free government.

Article XXV.  No subject ought, in any case, or in any time, to be declared guilty of treason or felony by the legislature. 


You get the idea. Thomas Cromwell and John Adams, both exemplary public servants, governmental theorists and tacticians, held widely varying visions of how to make government work – Cromwell to impose the state on the people, Adams to impose the people on the state. 

Before you think too critically of our man from Putney, however, do keep in mind that he lived over two centuries before our first American ambassador to the Court of Saint James. Thomas Cromwell's political initiatives were quite innovative and revolutionary indeed. This acknowledged, they were also baked into Cromwell's evangelical religious belief system, which from a 16th century mindset led to his belief that only one religion was the truth of God's word. Thus, God's truth of the royal supremacy must be imposed to save the very souls of the realm's subjects.

As the life of Thomas Cromwell proved to humanity, it was possible for a person born in poverty without the benefit of royal blood to possess genius, ingenuity, drive and ambition -- and to use God given talents to reach the highest echelon of society. From Cromwell's example, the very ethos of the “American Dream” was crafted. From Cromwell's genius, the very thought that government could be managed through laws crafted by the representation of the people was born.


Adams, John, Constitution of the Commonwealth of MassachusettsThe 189th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Audley, Thomas, The Act of Supremacy of 1534, Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project, England Under the Tudors.

Cromwell, Thomas, The Act of Restraint in Appeals (1533), History Learning Site.

Cromwell, Thomas, The Act of Succession (1534), Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project, England Under the Tudors.

Jillson, Cal, Pursuing the American Dream: Opportunity and Exclusion over Four Centuries, University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Mantel, Hilary, Wolf Hall, Fourth Estate, 2009.

Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers.


  1. Perfect timing ... first episode of Wolf Hall starts in an hour,


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